Exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky said April 13 he will begin working to trigger a revolution to overthrow the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Assuming he lives long enough to try it, Berezovsky is not the man to crack the Kremlin monolith.
In comments to London businessmen that were confirmed in an April 13 interview with the Guardian newspaper, Boris Berezovsky said he will begin working to trigger a revolution to overthrow the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin. "I am plotting a new Russian revolution ... and revolution is always violent. We need to use force to change this regime," Berezovsky said. There is "no chance to change it through elections." Subsequent comments toned down the ideas somewhat, but reaffirmed the core point that Berezovsky is seeking regime change in Moscow. Though the chances of upcoming Duma and presidential elections having any effect on the Russian political system are nil, the idea that Berezovsky can effectively wave the flag of revolution is silly. Berezovsky is no political dissident like Andrei Sakharov of Soviet times or Garry Kasparov of today. He is an exiled member of the Russian oligarchic class. In fact, one could easily argue that he was the original oligarch — and he was certainly the most powerful. During perestroika, Berezovsky essentially was a car salesman who used his contacts in the Communist Party to arrange creative bookkeeping and shipments of Lada automobiles in order to take advantage of the price differences between the domestic and foreign markets. In the West, such operations would have landed Berezovsky in prison in minutes, but in the rough-and-tumble world of immediate post-Soviet Russia, Berezovsky was rewarded with billionaire status. He quickly ingratiated himself to the government of then-President Boris Yeltsin, who allowed Berezovsky remarkable latitude to push his own agenda. Leveraging his contacts, he became the dominant economic power in the carmaker AvtoVAZ, the airline Aeroflot and the oil firm Sibneft (now part of Gazprom). His corporate empire also included a vast array of media holdings, without which Yeltsin's 1996 re-election effort would undoubtedly have failed. (To this day, Berezovsky is unique among the oligarchs in insisting upon the dubious assertion that he never once used his political connections to enrich himself.) When Yeltsin selected Putin to succeed him, Berezovsky swung his media influence back into play and helped deliver a neat first-round victory for Putin. Soon after, Putin and Berezovsky had a falling out — Berezovsky saw Putin as Yeltsin II, and Putin saw himself as a real president — that ended with Berezovsky fleeing into exile in London in 2001. Some of his assets passed to his one-time protege Roman Abramovich, who quickly allied with Putin against his former mentor. Since then, nearly all Berezovsky's Russian assets have been whittled away, with state firms taking the lion's share. In exile, Berezovsky has largely been reduced to sniping at the Putin government from afar, but he likely provided some financial support (and certainly provided rhetorical support) to anti-Russian efforts during events such as the Ukrainian Orange Revolution. Though he obviously sports a big Rolodex, Berezovsky is not loved in Russia. In fact, he is more or less despised. He was an oligarch who looted the state in the 1990s and was part and parcel of the corruption and ineffectiveness of the Yeltsin administration. Even among staunch anti-Putin elements, he is most remembered for using his media to twist public opinion in favor of Yeltsin in 1996, not for having any real concerns about democracy. As a Jew, Berezovsky also faces the reflexive anti-Semitic sentiment in much of Russia that denies him influence. Though he can be financially influential, no one is going to follow his flag — especially since the well-consolidated Putin government is far from teetering on the edge of the abyss of instability. Furthermore, in reaction to Berezovsky's pledge to foment revolution, the Russian government already has announced plans to formally charge Berezovsky with embezzlement for his involvement in a scandal involving Aeroflot. London is almost certain to review its 2003 decision to grant Berezovsky asylum after his April 13 call to overthrow Putin's government. What exactly is going through Berezovsky's head right now is a mystery. He could be positioning himself as the point man for any (as yet unclear) Western effort to undermine the Russian system, setting himself up as "the" dissident voice of a "free" Russia. If he sees a Russian-Western confrontation coming, he could be trying to establish himself as the West's proxy, a position that would obviously bring with it cash and bodyguards at worst, and even grant a (very) long shot at the Kremlin itself. As for timing, the Putin government is in the process of locking down for its leadership transition, so this could be the last window for anyone on the outside to influence the process. Berezovsky also could surmise that someone as high-profile as himself is immune to assassinations, because it would be next to impossible for the Kremlin to deny involvement with the termination of someone who actively called for a violent government overthrow. But even among the very few who staunchly insist that the Kremlin had nothing to do with the polonium poisoning of former KGB agent turned Putin critic (and Berezovsky ally) Alexander Litvinenko, such a denial is a very risky bet at best.